Once upon a time, a woman moved to a cave in the mountains to study with a
guru. She wanted, she said, to learn everything there was to know. The guru
supplied her with stacks of books and left her alone so that she could
Every morning, he asked her the same question; "Have you learned everything
there is to know yet?" Each morning her answer was the same; "No," she said,
"I haven't." The guru would then strike her over the head with the cane.
This scenario repeated itself for months. One day the guru entered the cave,
asked the same questions, heard the same answer and raised his cane to hit
her in the same way, but the woman grabbed the cane from the guru, stopping
the assault in midair.
Relieved to end the daily batterings, but fearing reprisal, the woman looked
up at the guru. To her surprise, the guru smiled. "Congratulations," he
said, "You have graduated. You now know everything there is to know." "How's
that?" the woman asked. "You have learned that you will never learn
everything there is to know," he replied. "And you have learned how to stop
the pain. "
co·de·pen·den·cy [k di péndnsee ] or co·de·pen·dence [k di péndns ] noun
1. mutual need: the dependence of two people, groups, or organisms on each
other, especially when this reinforces mutually harmful behavior patterns
2. COUNSELLING relationship of mutual need: a situation in which one
person feels a need to be needed by another person, for example, the partner
of an alcoholic or a parent of a drug-addicted child
co·de·pen·dent noun adjective
Jill came for counseling about her relationship with her mother. Jill's
mother was big on 'duty', 'obligation', favoring some children and
grandchildren over others, insisting that if her daughter really loved her
she would, of course, and be happy to visit her each week, phone every
second day at least (every day if she were traveling). Jill's maternal
grandmother was still alive, and Jill's mother visited her mother every week
regularly, phoned every second day etc. etc. but often complained about it
all... (Jill's mother, by the way, was an only child; and both her mother
and grandmother had 'problems' with the men in their lives). Another feature
of Jill's upbringing was 'Secrets'. No one outside the family was to know
about family matters - and secrets were kept from Jill and/or her brother as
Jill said to me, 'I feel as if I've never been allowed to grow up. My mother
wants to know everything about my life, and won't let me be an autonomous,
independent person. I love her, and am grateful for a lot about my
protective upbringing, but how can I extricate myself from my mother without
rejecting her? I'm scared of her. She doesn't know the old saying "Give them
roots, then give them wings"!'
'Do I have to go out to work to have a "busy" excuse? Or move away to
another town? My mother's 65, and my grandmother's 86. Is that too late for
them to change?'
Recovery and Healing
Codependency is all about projecting our unmet needs onto another. We might
'love' them, yes, but it's 'need-love' rather than 'gift-love'. 'I love you
so that you will meet my needs'. So one is treated as an object, rather than
as an autonomous person. Recovery or healing is the process whereby we find
our true selves apart from the person we are 'enmeshed' with.
Codependent persons often say things that imply 'I'm the way I am because of
you. You are the problem. Why can't you change? You are so...'
Just about every 'codependent' person I've counseled comes from a
'dysfunctional' family. A dysfunctional family is characterised by some of
* children have to follow rules like 'Don't feel, don't trust, don't tell'
* emotions are either expressed violently, with a lot of anger, (e.g 'Don't
you cry or I'll give you something to cry about!'); or they are repressed
* there is a lack of real/healthy intimacy
* children feel they have to meet adults' needs
* there may be emotional, physical, sexual, or spiritual abuse - or neglect
* 'perfectionism' may be a factor in Christian homes
* there are lots of rigid rules, and punishments. Sometimes these rules are
arbitrary - not easily understood, or they change without warning
* there is a 'strictness' sometimes about what to believe and what not to
believe. Truth is black and white
* the 'silent treatment' may be common
* you must keep family secrets; there is a lot of denial
* 'triangulation' may occur, where one family member is used as a go-between
* there is a 'victim' or 'martyr' syndrome: 'I'm feeling bad so it's your /
someone else's fault'
* personal boundaries are not clearly defined, accepted or respected
* 'masks' are worn to impress the right people
* 'control' is big!
* children in these situations cope by becoming perfectionists, or pleasers,
or clowns, or scapegoats to deflect the family tensions
* adults from dysfunctional families may be workaholics (until their midlife
crisis!), or solitary/lost and drifting through life, controllers, addicted
to alcohol or other substances, having low self-esteem, unable to handle
* you learn that it's unsafe to trust any / too many people
* there's not much fun; sometimes not many happy times with visitors.
* everything one does, thinks, or says is judged by someone else's
standards -- nothing is done, said, or thought "Good Enough".
* you do not know or believe that being vulnerable and asking for help is
both OKAY and NORMAL.
* you do not know that it is OKAY to talk about problems outside the family;
or that feelings just are -- and it is better to share them than to deny,
minimize or justify them.
One of the common by-products of dysfunctional families is that they produce
'adult children.' I found this somewhere: 'Each of us begins life as a
vulnerable child, dependent upon our parents. If our parents are healthy and
secure individuals with good parenting skills, then we will have a good
chance of emerging into adulthood as secure, happy individuals. But if our
parents were individuals who suffered from compulsive or addictive patterns,
their messages and behaviors to us were likely to be inconsistent, confusing
or even damaging. Perhaps they lavished us with love and attention one day
and ignored or rejected us the next. Being unable to cope themselves, such
parents may have expected us to take on adult responsibilities well in
advance of adulthood, or to care for, protect or make decisions for them and
other family members. We usually felt woefully inadequate and confused under
such pressures. Instead of being encouraged to be children, gradually
maturing to welcome adult challenges, we may have reached adulthood with
little understanding of the maturing process. We may reexperience feelings
of being overwhelmed, helpless or resentful under the ordinary stresses of
adult life. We are "adult children": we have the bodies of adults, the
responsibilities, drives and goals of adults, but the unprocessed emotions
of small, dependent children.'
A common feature of codependent relationships is 'Enmeshment'. In a healthy
relationship, each person is valued as an individual. Each has his/her
uniqueness to contribute to the relationship and to the world. Therefore,
each person has his or her own thoughts and feelings and each takes
responsibility for his or her actions. Enmeshment is when one person or
partner tries to influence the thinking of the other or wants the other to
have exactly the same feelings. Enmeshment is attempting to feel and think
as if you were the same person.
Recovery involves re-shaping our thinking, allowing ourselves to truly feel
our feelings, taking responsibility for our own behaviors, and experiencing
God's love, healing and forgiveness. It begins with an 'aha' experience: 'I
have a problem. But I am not prepared to go on living like this! I need
When you change your thinking you are moving from 'blaming' to 'repenting';
from 'I have a problem and it's _____'s fault' to 'I will accept
responsibility for who I am or what I've done or the feelings I have
about...' 'You' statements ('You don't care!' 'Your behavior is causing me
to be like this' etc.) change to 'I' statements. 'I accept responsibility
for my own feelings and behavior.'
One of the areas we have to examine is the 'software' for living in our
brain put there by significant people in our past. We are open to 'changing
the tapes', living by another script! I don't have to agree with everything
my mother / father / partner says...I don't have to be steadfastly loyal --
particularly when the loyalty is unjustified, and personally harmful.
Recovery and Relationships
Many relationships break up when one member of the couple goes into
recovery. This happens for a number of reasons.
Problems which were basic to the relationship may have been previously
medicated away through the use of chemicals, overwork, or food. Without this
addictive medication problems can erupt. Since the couple has not had
experienced handling problems before, these differences seem insurmountable,
and perhaps they are.
Another reason why couples go into crisis during recovery is that, as long
as there was an addiction, everyone knew their role. One person was the
addicted, acting out, contrite, messedup one. The other person was the
responsible, in control, judgmental, long suffering martyr.
When one person stops becoming the problem, the reason for everyone's
unhappiness, then everyone has to adjust. Unfortunately, often what happens
is that the responsible, non-addicted one begins to hope that finally she or
he will get their needs met. They will finally get the reward they have
waited for so long. Their expectations soar. The person newly in recovery
can barely get dressed in the morning, let alone meet anyone else's needs.
Long buried rage from the long suffering one, and confused rage from the
recovering one flare into arguments, and often separation.
But there is hope. Here are ten rules for living together in recovery. They
are not guarantees, but they can help both of you find out if you do have a
viable relationship, and prevent you from killing each other during that
RULE #1 You cannot change anyone else.
Give up thinking that, if only she or he stopped doing this or that, then
you would be happy. It is not true. You can do nothing to control,
manipulate or coerce another person to acting in a way you think should make
you happy. Simply give it up. No blaming.
RULE #2 You can change your behavior.
Your emotions, reactions, thoughts, feelings, all are not really under your
control. But your behavior is, and your behavior is all you are really
responsible for. Change yourself.
RULE #3 -- Changing your behavior, over time, may lead to a change in
It is strange how that happens, but some things you thought you could never
stand, seem to lose their importance if you stop feeding them by acting on
them. Don't lose hope.
RULE #4 -- Both of you must go into recovery.
You are not responsible for anyone else's addiction, but if you want this
relationship to have any chance you will have to get specific support. That
may mean therapy (couples and individual) and/or support groups. The two of
you are going to have to learn new ways to communicate,
argue, and problem solve together, and that means you can't do it on your
own. Get help.
RULE #5 -- Your childhood wasn't as rosy as you fool yourself into thinking
Everyone learned some dysfunctional ways of relating from their parents.
These old beliefs are entrenched, and very hard to change. That is why you
need feedback from people other than your partner, or your family. Too often
you are reacting just the way your mother or father taught you to react.
Learn the truth.
RULE #6 -- You need to learn how to stand up for your truth in a way which
will not degrade, humiliate, put down, or attack another person.
You do this by owning all your thoughts, feelings, and reactions as your
own, not as something caused by someone else. Don't shame others.
RULE #7 -- Count to twenty before you explode.
Then, just before you let fire, ask yourself if you might not get further
with this issue if you didn't first talk it out with a third party, before
destroying the planet of your partner. Hold back
RULE #8 -- Try using the phrase "I interpret what you are doing as..."
rather than the old stand by, "You make me feel. . . ".
So, "You made me so mad when you slammed the door!" becomes, " I got so mad
when you slammed the door because I interpreted that to mean that you were
pissed off at me!". Your partner can respond," Yes I was mad at you!", or
can respond, " Hey, the wind blew the door closed!" Own your feelings.
RULE #9 -- You have very strong emotions in two circumstances. Either you
are being truly, strongly abused by someone else, or you are painting the
face of a previous abuser onto the face of the person you are with.
This is called projection and it is the primary cause of divorce. If you are
in clear danger, either get away, or at the very least get some professional
counseling. But if you are not in real danger, but keep getting furious at
every little thing she or he does, entertain the possibility that you are
projecting the face of a parent, or old partner onto your present companion.
Just entertain the idea that it may not be all their fault. Talk about it
with some uninvolved people. Check it out.
RULE #10 -- Take care of your body.
Eat healthy, exercise moderately, soak in a bath, get a massage, be gentle
with yourself. This is a highly stressful time for both partners. So don't
try to be perfect, just try to be a loving parent to yourself. Be gentle
Example: She drives you crazy when she leaves the top off the toothpaste.
You have tried criticisms, nagging, strategic notes, and hiding her
toothbrush. Nothing has changed her behavior.
(Rule #1). You stop saying anything about the top.
(Rule #2). It is very frustrating.
(Rule #9). You look at your anger, in therapy, and in a self help group.
(Rule #4). You become aware how extreme your reaction is to this trifling
detail. In looking at your own childhood you discover how important it was
to keep everything orderly. Without order the top would fly off the family,
and someone would explode. So you learned as a child that order was a matter
(Rule #5). You realize that you got angry at that toothpaste top because
mess makes you a little scared. Understanding that, you are more cautious
about which issues you will make a stand on. Anger does stress you out.
(Rule #10). The toothpaste top is not that important.
(Rule #3). But that doesn't mean that there are not cleaning issues which
need to be addressed. Leaving her cloths all over the bedroom floor when she
walks in, that is an issue which the two of you are going to have to work
[The above was adapted from an article by David Skibbins]
Getting My Needs Met
Here are some wise words from From A Gift to Myself , Charles L. Whitfield,
'From the second we are born we have needs. These needs are healthy and
In a healthy family the parents are able to get their own needs met in a
healthy way, and able to help and support one another in getting these met.
Thus they are capable and free to provide for the child's needs. They also
model and help the child in getting its own needs met.
The more wounded the parents are and the more troubled, unhealthy or
dysfunctional the family is, the less the child will be able to get its
needs met by parents and even by itself. The child becomes so preoccupied
with others' behavior and needs that it is unable to get many or even most
of its own needs met. Unable to get its needs met, and feeling increasingly
overwhelmed with pain - who we really are - our Child Within, our True
Self - goes into hiding.
What emerges to help it survive is a false self, a co-dependent self. '
Signs of Unhealthy Boundaries
1. Telling all.
2. Talking at an intimate level at the first meeting.
3. Falling in love with a new acquaintance.
4. Falling in love with anyone who reaches out.
5. Being overwhelmed by a person - preoccupied.
6. Acting on the first sexual impulse.
7. Being sexual for your partner, not yourself.
8. Going against personal values or rights to please others.
9. Not noticing when someone else displays inappropriate boundaries.
10. Not noticing when someone invades your boundaries.
11. Accepting food, gifts, touch, or sex that you don't want.
12. Touching a person without asking.
13. Taking as much as you can get for the sake of getting.
14. Giving as much as you can give for the sake of giving.
15. Allowing someone to take as much as they can from you.
16. Letting others direct your life.
17. Letting others describe your reality.
18. Letting others define you.
19. Believing others can anticipate your needs.
20. Expecting others to fill your needs automatically.
21. Falling apart so someone will take care of you.
23. Sexual and physical abuse.
24. Food and chemical abuse.
Risk Taking Is Free
To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach out for another is to risk involvement.
To expose feeling is to risk exposing your true self.
To place your ideas, your dreams before the crowd is to risk
To love is to risk not being loved in return.
To live is to risk dying.
To hope is to risk despair.
To try is to risk failure.
But the risk must be taken, because the greatest hazard in life
is to risk nothing.
The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing and is nothing.
He may avoid suffering and sorrow but he simply cannot learn,
feel, change, grow, love, live.
Chained by his certitudes, he is a slave; he has forfeited
ONLY A PERSON WHO RISKS----IS FREE
The Twelve Steps of Co-Dependents Anonymous
1. We admitted we were powerless over others - that our lives had become
2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to
3. Made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being, the exact
nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make
amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do
so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact
with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God's will for
us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried
to carry this message to other co-dependents, and to practice these
principles in all our affairs.
The Twelve Traditions of Co-Dependents Anonymous
1. Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon
2. For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority -- a loving
higher power as expressed to our group conscience. Our leaders are but
trusted servants; they do not govern.
3. The only requirement for membership in CoDA is a desire for healthy and
4. Each group should remain autonomous except in matters affecting other
groups or CoDA as a whole.
5. Each group has but one primary purpose -- to carry its message to other
codependents who still suffer.
6. A CoDA group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the CoDA name to any
related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property and
prestige divert us from our primary spiritual aim.
7. A CoDA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside
8. CoDependents Anonymous should remain forever non--professional, but our
service centers may employ special workers.
9. CoDA, as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service
boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
10. CoDA has no opinion on outside issues; hence the CoDA name ought never
be drawn into public controversy.
11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than
promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press,
radio, and films.
12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions; ever
reminding us to place principles before personalities.
(c) Co-Dependents Anonymous 1988
Letting Go . . .
To "let go" does not mean to stop caring, it means I can't do it for someone
To "let go" is not to cut myself off, it's the realization I can't control
To "let go" is not to enable, but to allow learning from natural
To "let go" is to admit powerlessness, which means the outcome is not in my
To "let go" is not to try to change or blame another, it's to make the most
To "let go" is not to care for, but to care about.
To "let go" is not to fix, but to be supportive.
To "let go" is not to judge, but to allow another to be a human being.
To "let go" is not to be in the middle arranging the outcomes, but to allow
others to affect their own destinies.
To "let go" is not to be protective, it's to permit another to face reality.
To "let go" is not to deny, but to accept.
To "let go" it not to nag, scold or argue, but instead to search out my own
shortcomings, and correct them.
To "let go" is not to adjust everything to my desires but to take each day
as it comes, and cherish myself in it.
To "let go" is not to criticize and regulate anybody but to try to become
what I dream I can be.
To "let go" is not to regret the past, but to grow and live for the future.
To "let go" is to fear less, and love more.
Choose any of the following:
1. 'Grace means accepting the other as they are. God accepts us before we
change, as we change, whether we change or not. Love is the relationship of
subject and object that creates worth in the object rather than responding
to worth in the object.' Too hard?
2. There's an old Christian cliche about 'loving the sinner but hating the
sin'. How does one distinguish between 'loving the person' and 'hating the
behavior'? How does that actually work in practice?
3. Because the '12 Steps' are meant to include anyone who is willing to
change their inapproriate behaviors, they are not specifically Christian.
God you're getting help from is 'God as you understand God'. Do you have any
problem with that?
4. How would you counsel Jill (story above)? Is 65, 85 too late for change?
5. Can you add some other features common to dysfunctional families to the
6. Charles Whitfield (quoted above) writes about the Child going into
hiding. 'Other than assisting with survival, this false self is incapable of
getting our needs met. Our Child still has needs, and from time to time it
will peep out or even bust out to try to get some of them met. At times this
busting out occurs through an unhealthy explosion or a binge of an addiction
or a compulsion and may end up hurting us or hurting another. So, how do we
learn to get our needs met? First we can find out what our needs are.' He
suggests we take a few minutes and consider what our own needs are. As each
of these needs comes to mind, we write them down. After a few minutes would
you like to share one or two with others?
7. 'I can't change things I can't change, and trying to do that will make me
crazy. The only person I can change is myself. But, by changing myself, I
may change more than I can imagine.' True?
8. Want to talk about any of the Unhealthy Boundaries items above which got
9. What do you make of this quote, from an unknown source: 'Contrary to
popular opinion ... expecting the impossible of ourselves is not
motivational. It is suicidal. This is not to be confused with expecting the
best of ourselves, or believing in ourselves, or even believing that we can
be and do and have what we once thought impossible. Simply: In any given
moment we are who we are; We have what we have. Expecting it to be different
in that moment is certain pain. Pain + the difference betwen our expectation
and what actually is.'
10. 'Freedom Is Not Given. It Is Taken. And in taking it, one gives it to
others.' 'Free (fre) adj.fre'er, fre' est [ME. frefreo, not in bondage] -
not under the control of some other person or some arbitrary power; able to
act or think without compulsion or arbitrary restriction.' Is that possible?
11. Talk about 'setting appropriate boundaries' with the help of these
ideas: * If we see we need to set a boundary with someone, do it clearly,
without anger and with few words. * Setting boundaries is about learning to
take care of ourselves, no matter what happens, where we go, or who we're
with. * Without boundaries you don't know who you are. With them you can
relate to others and intimacy is possible. * Assert, clarify boundaries, set
limits, say no.
12. 'The hardest thing for any of us to do is to have compassion for
ourselves. As children we felt responsible for the things that happened to
us. We blamed ourselves for the things that were done to us and for the
deprivations we suffered. There is nothing more powerful in this
transformational process than being able to go back to that child who still
exists within us and say, "It wasn't your fault. You didn't do anything
wrong, you were just a little kid".' (From The Dance of Wounded Souls by
Robert Burney). Why is that process hard?
13. A wife and her husband were in a hot and heavy argument in a therapy
session when the counselor interrupted to ask, "Do you want to be happy or
do you want to be right?" That question changed their relationship. Any
idea why? (Paraphrased from Dysfunctional Relationships Dynamics part 1
- Power Struggle by Robert Burney).
14. "As long as we haven't healed our childhood wounds then there are a lot
more than two people involved in a marriage. There may only be two people in
the room - but the room is also full of the ghosts of all of our past
emotional wounds." Can you share any examples from your own experience of
this very common phenomenon?
Dear Monica, by Rowland Croucher
A letter from Rowland to a woman seeking guidance (part of this website)
The Dance of Wounded Souls by Robert Burney
Codependent No More, by Melody Beattie
A good place to begin reading.
Beyond Codependency, by Melody Beattie
A sequel to Codependent No More.
The Language of Letting Go, by Melody Beattie
A book of daily stories about codependence.
The Family: A New Way of Creating Solid-Self Esteem, by John Bradshaw
A good book about emotional abuse that addresses the question, There was no
alcohol or drugs or mental illness in my family of origin, so why am I so
mixed up? This updated version of the original title also addresses how
families and individuals can get healing from dysfunction.
Breaking Free, by Pia Mellody and Andrea Wells Miller
A recovery workbook for Facing Codependence.
Facing Codependence, by Pia Mellody with Andrea Wells Miller and J. Keith
What codependency is, where it comes from, and how it sabotages our lives.
Family Secrets and Shame
Family Secrets: The Path to Self-Acceptance and Reunion, by John Bradshaw
Explains how secrets within families can so powerfully influence
Healing the Shame That Binds You, by John Bradshaw
A revealing look at how toxic shame can lead to many types of very serious
individual and familial problems.
Adult Children - The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families, by John and Linda
Covers how persons who did not grow up in alcoholic familes can still
develop many types of codependent issues.
Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child, by John Bradshaw
Using procedures from his workshops, the author shows how to reparent wounds
to one's core self in order to heal.
Healing the Child Within, by Charles L. Whitfield (with a related workbook)
Written by Rowland Croucher, July 2001.